Film Noir

Tribute by Jeffrey Sward
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Film noir is a type of American crime film featuring cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting with an ominous atmosphere conveyed by shadowy black and white photography and foreboding background music. The terminology "film noir" was originally applied by French critics and translates as "black cinema." File historians defined the category of film noir retrospectively. Directors and producers were unaware of the term film noir when the films were being created. True film noir is generally an American black and white film created between 1940 and 1959. Thusly, true film noir is temporally and geographically limited to this specific time period and place.

Characteristics of Film Noir

Below are several authors' descriptions of the characteristics of Film Noir.

Christine Gledhill

  1. Investigative structure of the narrative
  2. voice over, flashback
  3. proliferation of points of view
  4. frequent unstable characterization of the heroine
  5. Expressionist visual style, emphasis on sexuality in photographing of women

Raymond Durgnat

  1. Crime as Social Criticism
    1. Prohibition-type gangsterism
    2. Corrupt penology
    3. The fight game
    4. Juvenile delinquency
  2. Gangsters
  3. On the run
  4. Private eyes and Adventurers
  5. Middle class murder
  6. Portraits and doubles
  7. Sexual pathology
  8. Psychopaths
  9. Hostages to fortune
  10. Nazis and Communists
  11. Guignol. horror, fantasy

Paul Schrader

  1. Majority of scenes lit for night
  2. Oblique and vertical lines preferred to horizontal
  3. Actors and setting are often given equal lighting emphasis
  4. Compositional tension preferred to physical action
  5. Freudian attachment to water (rain, docks, piers)
  6. Romantic narration
  7. Complex chronological order frequently used to reinforce feelings of hopelessness and lost time

Robert Profirio

  1. The non-heroic hero
  2. Alienation and loneliness
  3. Existential choice
  4. Man under sentence of death
  5. Meaninglessness, purposelessness, the absurd
  6. Chaos, violence, paranoia
  7. Sanctuary, ritual and order

Jeremy Butler

  1. Low key high contrast lighting
  2. Imbalanced lighting
  3. Night for night
  4. Deep focus
  5. Wide angle focal length
  6. Asymmetrical mise-en-scène
  7. Extreme low and high angles
  8. Foreground obstructions

Eddie Muller

  1. Suffering with Style

Jeffrey Sward

  1. Lighting through Venetian blind gobos
  2. Dialogue scenes where all of the actors face the camera, especially at different distances.
  3. All main characters are doomed and die in the course of the picture. Just like Shakespeare.
  4. Femme fatales.
  5. Hopelessness, inevitability, and fate

Quintessential Film Noir examples

  • Out of the Past (1947) ***
  • Kiss Me Deadly (1955) ***
  • The Big Combo (1955) **
  • The Big Sleep (1946) ** [10]
  • Gun Crazy (1949) **
  • His Kind of Woman (1951) ** [8]
  • Murder My Sweet (1944) **
  • The Asphalt Jungle (1950) *
  • Cat People (1942) * [1] (Lewton)
  • Dark Corner (1946) *
  • The Killing (1956) *
  • Act of Violence (1949) [9]
  • Armored Car Robbery (1950)
  • The Big Heat (1953)
  • The Big Steal (1949)
  • Blast of Silence (1961)
  • Born to Kill (1947)
  • The Burglar (1957)
  • City that Never Sleeps (1953) [2]
  • Criss Cross (1949)
  • Cry of the City (1948)
  • Detour (1945)
  • D.O.A. (1950)
  • Double Indemnity (1944)
  • Force of Evil (1948)
  • He Walked by Night (1948) [5]
  • Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar) (1948)
  • I Walked with a Zombie (1943) (Lewton)
  • Johnny O'Clock (1947)
  • Kansas City Confidential (1952)
  • The Killers (1946) [3]
  • The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
  • Macao (1952)
  • The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  • The Naked City (1948) [4]
  • Night and the City (1950)
  • Pickup on South Street (1953)
  • Pitfall (1948)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
  • Raw Deal (1948)
  • Roadblock (1951)
  • Scarlet Street (1945)
  • The Seventh Victim (1943) (Lewton)
  • The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  • The Third Man (1949) [7]
  • This Gun for Hire (1942)
  • Touch of Evil (1958) [6]
  • Voice of the Whistler (1945)
  • Wicked Woman (1954)


[1] Contains both the famous Lewton Bus scene and a famous swimming pool scene. Both highly effective scenes use only foley and lighting effects, with no dialogue and no music. The the term "Lewton Bus" is often used equivalently with the term "jump scare." A Lewton Bus technique slowly builds tension, then startles the audience with something that turns out to be harmless, often via a jump cut. In the original Lewton Bus scene, foley implies an approaching panther right before the same sounds are shown to be emanating from a city bus.
[2] Chicago at night.
[3] Dragnet theme.
[4] Dragnet theme. There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one of them.
[5] Chase through Los Angeles storm drains. Often compared to chase through Vienna sewers in The Third Man.
[6] A Chapman crane long take tracking shot opens the picture including running under the opening credits. This is perhaps the best known long take in motion picture history. The long take is three minutes and twenty seconds.
[7] The Third Man contains many iconic scenes, such as (a) the first reveal of Orson Wells in an alcove doorway at 8 Schreyvogelgasse, via his cat, shoelaces, and spot light (b) Chase through Vienna sewers (compare to He Walked by Night) (c) the 75-secornd ending solo walk long take by Alida Valli as Anna through a road in the Vienna Municipal Cemetery near the Jugendstil monument with bowed head. In the distance of some views is the tall pillar to fallen Soviet Soldiers.
[8] Vincent Price steals the show playing a ham actor who constantly quotes Shakespeare.
[9] Los Angeles in 1949, particularly Bunker Hill and the iconic Angel's Flight.
[10] Complex but not incomprehensible plot of The Big Sleep.


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